What are Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)?

Exchange traded funds (ETFs) have become immensely popular investment vehicles providing efficient access to a diverse range of global market exposures. As of 2022, there are over 3,000 ETFs trading in the United States with over $7 trillion in total assets under management, signifying explosive growth over the last decade.

ETFs are basket funds tracking an index or benchmark that individually trade on exchanges just like stocks. This differs from traditional mutual funds which trade only once per day after markets close at their net asset value (NAV). Blending aspects of both stocks and funds, ETFs offer intraday liquidity, low costs, transparency, and tax efficiency.

ETFs encompass both passively managed index tracking funds and actively managed alpha-seeking strategies. Index-based ETFs dominate the landscape, offering low-cost exposure to equity benchmarks, market sectors, investment factors, fixed income indexes, commodities, and more.

Key Features and Benefits of ETFs

1. Liquidity and Trading Flexibility: ETFs trade on stock exchanges like individual stocks, offering intraday liquidity. Investors can buy or sell shares at market prices throughout the trading day, providing a level of flexibility not found in traditional mutual funds, which are priced only at the end of each trading day.

2. Cost Efficiency: One of the standout features of ETFs is their cost efficiency. Compared to actively managed funds, ETFs typically have lower expense ratios. A major component of this is that most are passive index vehicles, but even active fund benefit from cost advantages of these products.

3. Transparency in Action: ETFs managers disclose their portfolio holdings on a daily basis. This transparency empowers investors to make informed decisions, understanding exactly what assets they own and how the investment aligns with their overall financial strategy.

4. Tax Efficiency: The tax structure of ETFs adds another layer of appeal. Due to their unique “in-kind” creation and redemption process, ETFs often incur fewer capital gains distributions compared to mutual funds. This tax efficiency can result in potential savings for investors in taxable accounts.

5. Diversification Simplified: Like Mutual Funds, ETFs function as baskets of securities. This inherent diversification helps spread risk, providing investors with exposure to a broad array of stocks, bonds, commodities, or even alternatives within a single investment vehicle. From broad-based to niche, ETFs facilitate cheap diversified exposure across myriad asset classes.

Versatility in Investment Strategies

From core investments to tactical strategies, ETFs provide a versatile toolkit for investors. Whether used for long-term buy-and-hold strategies, short-term trading, or risk management through hedging, the adaptability of ETFs accommodates a wide range of investment goals.

1. Equity ETFs: Equity ETFs track stock indices, offering investors exposure to a diverse range of companies within a specific market, sector, or style. The first ETFs tracked plain vanilla equity indexes like the S&P 500, but product developers have since flooded the market with ETFs overlaying various “rules-based” methodologies onto indexes leading to many flavors of equity ETFs:

Market Capitalization Weighted – The most common methodology used for traditional indices like the S&P 500 weight constituents purely by size.

Price Weighted – Indexes using price weighting ignore market capitalization, simplifying to weight solely based on share price.

Equal Weighted – As the name implies, equal weight ETFs ignore size differentials and give equal weight to all constituents.

Fundamentally Weighted – Fundamental factors like dividends and earnings are used to derive constituent weights.

Thematic/Trend-Based – Weights driven by adherence to certain themes like robotics, clean energy, artificial intelligence, and other transformative economic trends.

Smart Beta/Factor-Based – This growing category of ETFs targets factors like value, momentum, low volatility, quality, and size to drive returns.

Sector – Focus on specific industries or sectors of the economy. Investors can target their investments in areas like technology, healthcare, energy, or real estate, depending on their outlook and preferences.

International – provide exposure to foreign markets allowing investors to diversify globally by investing broadly across all countries outside of the United States or taking advantage of opportunities in different regions or even countries while managing geopolitical and currency risks.

2. Bond ETFs: Bond ETFs provide exposure to fixed-income securities, including government bonds, corporate bonds, or municipal bonds. They offer a way for investors to access the bond market without directly purchasing individual bonds.

3. Alternative ETFs: While historically focused on core equity and fixed income markets, ETF sponsors continue expanding into alternative asset classes previously inaccessible to average investors:

Commodity ETFs allow investors to gain exposure to the performance of commodities such as gold, silver, oil, or agricultural products. These ETFs provide a convenient way to diversify portfolios with tangible assets and hedge against inflation.

Currency ETFs provide exposure to foreign currency fluctuations relative to USD.

Volatility ETFs provide exposure to VIX Futures as a hedge against equity exposure.

Crypto ETFs provide direct exposure to spot Bitcoin and futures in Bitcoin and Ethereum while eliminating need for crypto wallets.

Alternatives Strategy ETFs tap into hedge fund strategies like merger arbitrage, long/short equity, managed futures, and more.

Buffer ETFs are an increasingly popular category of ETF product innovation. As the name suggests, these incorporate structured protection to shield investors from a predefined level of downside risk over a set period of time, most frequently on3 year. For example, a buffer ETF might offer buffer protection against the first 10% or 15% decline in the S&P 500 over a one year span. This built-in downside cushion comes with the cost of a cap on upside return making them most appropriate for conservative investors prioritizing drawdown defense. The leader in this category is Innovator ETFs.

4. Actively Managed ETFs: While index-based ETFs still dominate the market, actively managed ETFs are the fastest growing segment of the industry. Typically implementing quantitative rules-based stock selection models, they offer transparency into their strategy while pursuing alpha. However, they carry higher expense ratios than index funds with no guarantee of outperformance.

Strategies for Using ETFs

1. Core Portfolio Holdings: Many investors use ETFs as core holdings within their portfolios. By selecting broad market index ETFs, investors gain exposure to the overall market, serving as a foundation for a well-diversified investment strategy.

2. Tactical Asset Allocation: For those seeking a more active approach, ETFs offer the flexibility to tactically allocate assets based on market conditions. This approach involves adjusting portfolio weightings in response to short-term market trends or economic indicators.

3. Income Generation: Certain ETFs focus on generating income for investors through dividend-paying stocks or fixed-income securities. These income-oriented ETFs can be appealing to those seeking regular cash flow from their investments.

4. Risk Management and Hedging: Investors can use ETFs for risk management by employing hedging strategies. This involves offsetting potential losses in one part of the portfolio with gains in another, providing a level of protection during market downturns.

5. Sector Rotation: ETFs tracking specific sectors or industries enable investors to implement a sector rotation strategy. This involves adjusting portfolio weightings based on the expected performance of different sectors in the economic cycle.

Risks and Considerations

While ETFs offer numerous advantages, as with all investments it’s essential to be aware of the risks involved:

1. Market Risk: The value of ETFs can fluctuate based on market conditions. Economic downturns, geopolitical events, or changes in interest rates can impact the performance of the underlying assets.

2. Liquidity Risk: Although ETFs are generally liquid, some niche or less-traded ETFs may face liquidity challenges. This can result in wider bid-ask spreads and potential difficulties in executing trades at desired prices resulting in higher trading costs for entry or exit.

3. Tracking Error: While ETFs aim to replicate the performance of their underlying indices, there may be discrepancies. Tracking error refers to the divergence between the ETF’s performance and that of its benchmark index.

4. Issuer and Counterparty Risk: Investors should consider the financial stability of the ETF issuer. Additionally, certain ETFs may use derivatives or engage in securities lending, introducing counterparty risk that requires careful evaluation.

How to Choose the Right ETFs for You

1. Define Your Investment Goals: Clearly outline your investment objectives, whether it’s long-term growth, income generation, or a specific asset allocation strategy.

2. Understand the Underlying Index: Thoroughly research and understand the index that the ETF aims to track. The index composition significantly influences the performance of the ETF.

3. Expense Ratios: Compare expense ratios across different ETFs. Lower expenses can contribute to higher returns over time.

4. Liquidity and Trading Considerations: Choose ETFs with ample liquidity and sufficient trading volume to ensure ease of buying or selling shares at desired prices.

Assets Under Management -A minimum of $100 million AUM for an ETF is preferred because it usually indicates better liquidity. In this case, bigger is better.

Average Daily Volume – A minimum average of 50,000 shares traded each day is important for liquidity and better pricing. As with AUM, the higher the better.

Tracking Error – For Index ETFs this is an indication of how closely the ETF delivers the performance of its benchmark.

Bid/Ask Spread – Tighter spreads imply lower transaction costs and are usually a function of trading volume.

Premiums/Discounts – Deviations between market price and NAV affect true returns.

Holdings Analysis – Do the fund holdings accurately reflect the stated investment mandate?

5. Issuer Reputation: Consider the reputation and financial stability of the ETF issuer. Established and reputable issuers often provide a level of confidence in the fund’s management.

Unlocking the Potential of ETFs

The ETF due diligence process warrants just as much scrutiny as picking individual stocks or mutual funds. Investor education remains imperative.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have undeniably transformed the investment landscape, offering investors a versatile and cost-effective tool for building diversified portfolios. Whether you’re a seasoned investor or just starting, incorporating ETFs into your investment strategy can provide numerous benefits.

By understanding the advantages, strategies, and potential risks associated with ETFs, you can make informed decisions aligned with your financial goals. As the financial markets continue to evolve, ETFs stand as a beacon of innovation and adaptability, offering a dynamic approach to navigating the complexities of modern investing.